The Art of Rice: Symbol and Meaning in Southeast Asian Village Tradition

The Art of Rice: Symbol and Meaning in Southeast Asian Village Tradition

Ancient traditions surround growing and storage of essential food grain.

By Rashaan Meneses

Before Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, the predominant religions in Southeast Asia revolved around rice, ecology, and the environment. Throughout Asia, rice is still considered sacred and the ritual of harvesting rice has shaped Southeast Asian cultures and tradition for centuries.

On Tuesday, June 1, 2004, Dr. Eric Crystal gave a talk co-sponsored by the UCLA Art Department and the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies on "The Art of Rice: Symbol and Meaning in Southeast Asian Village Tradition" illustrated with slides and video footage. Dr. Crystal is an anthropologist and photographer. A lecturer for the University of California, Berkeley, Group in Asian Studies, he is also the retired vice-chair of the UCB Center for Southeast Asia Studies. In his talk, Dr. Crystal examined the sacred meaning in Southeast Asia of the staple food that feeds more than three billion people in the world.

Crystal explained that rice has informed many aspects of Southeast Asian village tradition, including religion and social order. In many parts of Southeast Asia, a three-class system has ordered society hierarchically. Those who owned land for cultivating rice were the most powerful. "Rank was noted in the size and quantity of the rice," he said. The size of a person's house and rice granaries distinguished the wealthy from the poor. In many places, rice granaries have been designed to resemble human houses, indicating the close connection between humans and their rice.

A great deal of time and detail is dedicated to creating elaborate storage facilities and containers for rice. As Dr. Crystal noted, "special ceremonies may take place when rice is brought in from the fields and installed into the granary." All the areas where rice is found, such as fields, granaries, and distilleries, are considered sacred spaces.

Included in the slide presentation were images of the intricate designs painted on rice granaries. For the Toraja peoples in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, rice rituals are often carried out in the morning and "rice is oftentimes related to rising suns." Many of the Toraja granaries are decorated with bright gold sunburst designs. The sun is often depicted as "the crowning element" of the granary. Dr. Crystal stated, "granaries are art spaces for the people. Some of the artisans are fed and paid for their full time work."

In Asian cultures, rice is strongly "associated with women and fertility" and religious ceremonies have been conducted mainly for "assurance of rice, fecundity of domestic animals, and propagation of human species." Throughout Southeast Asia and specifically in Indonesia, "people harvest rice with small finger knives so the rice goddess doesn't become upset." Both in Indonesia and the Philippines, senior skilled women have traditionally used delicate hand knives to carefully select the seed rice for future harvests. Many Southeast Asian cultures believe in a female rice deity and still today they make offerings and practice rituals to honor her.

The Rice Mother

In Java and Bali, the rice goddess is known as Dewi Sri. Among the Tai Yong of Northern Thailand, she is called Mae Ku'sok, and to other Southeast Asian cultures she is simply referred to as the "Rice Mother" or "Rice Maiden."

The Tai are the single largest ethnolinguistic group across mainland Southeast Asia. As Dr. Crystal reports, the Tai believe that the Rice Mother inhabits the rice field, protecting the harvest and nurturing the seed rice. Showing slides of Tai rice fields, Crystal explained, "the Rice Mother loves textiles and jewelry. She comes to visit the rice field at harvest time, so the villagers make a marker for her. They plant seeds next to the marker and use those seedlings for the next year."

In some rituals, a symbolic body of the Rice Mother is made out of straw and serves as the marker, which is then tied to a straw latticework and attached to a vertical bamboo stick so that the marker can stand upright in a special corner of the rice field. Offerings of meat, betel nut, white homespun cotton cloth, silver jewelry, and sarongs are placed next to the marker by a priest.

Southeast Asian rice rituals are as varied as they are numerous. Dr. Crystal was able to attend the dramatic Ma' Bua Ceremony of the Sa'dan Toraja in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Every twelve years the ceremony takes place to celebrate "good harvest." Carried out in sacred fields, the grounds are marked by three special types of trees: sandalwood, banyan, and lamba. The ceremony usually takes place in October or November.

As the day of the ceremony nears, large bamboo structures are erected. Families sacrifice small female pigs and offer the collarbone of the pig, which is a symbol of fecundity. Dr. Crystal described the ceremony, which begins "in the dead of night." They will illuminate the sacred ground "with huge bonfires of hardwood that has been dried and seasoned for months. The Toraja have so far been able to maintain their indigenous religious belief system and rituals despite the fact that they are a minority ethnic group, living on a majority-Muslim island.

New Technologies Erode Old Traditions

Not surprisingly, however, Eric Crystal stated that many of these rituals and the religions themselves are endangered. With modernization and new technologies rapidly spreading throughout Southeast Asian villages, the way rice is cultivated and harvested is changing as individuals and corporations try "to develop faster-producing grain." For more than two decades, the International Rice Research Institute, headquartered in the Philippines, has been introducing a small number of varieties that have gradually replaced a much larger number of highly diverse varieties that have been used for centuries. This has had devastating effects on the rice traditions and cultures of Southeast Asian villages. Rice is now frequently grown as a commercial product rather than through subsistence farming. With the use of new rice varieties, pesticides, fertilizers, and new technologies for harvesting rice, the rice culture and the delicate ecosystems that rice supports are changing dramatically.

As Dr. Crystal explained, "the traditional rice field is full of life. Even after rice is harvested, there are eels, frogs, and small fish that people gather." He stressed that "year after year, decade after decade, and millennia after millennia the rice field is renewed." But now all this may come to a halt.

In his video presentation, Dr. Crystal demonstrated the abundance of life that is supported by a traditional rice field ecosystem in rice terraces three thousand feet above sea level. During the rainy season, fish are harvested in these terraces. Ducks come after the rice harvest to eat the gleanings and lay eggs. As Dr. Crystal stated, "life is born and re-born, there's a constant cycle of birth and rebirth with rice." If measures are not taken to preserve this rich history and tradition, Dr. Crystal sadly predicts an unfortunate decline in rice culture and its associated art.

Eric Crystal's talk was largely an encore presentation of one given at an earlier symposium sponsored by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History held in conjunction with the traveling exhibition "The Art of Rice." The exhibit examines the interplay between rice and culture through a study of an astonishing array of visual art, including works from China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and other Asian countries. The UCLA showing of the exhibit has closed but the continuing exhibition schedule includes:

Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food, & the Arts, Napa Valley, California, September 3 - November 29, 2004.

Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu, Hawaii, February 16 - April 24, 2005.

A book, The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia, was also issued in conjunction with the exhibition. A collection of essays by thirty-seven authors, including Eric Crystal, the book also has rich depictions and images of rice-related art and culture in Asia. It was published by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. For more information see the website:

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Published: Thursday, July 15, 2004